Tag Archives: strange

Darth Vader's Work Ethic

It struck me this evening that we don’t really know much about Darth Vader’s work ethic. Does he work late? Weekends? It’s totally unclear. What are the hours like for a sith apprentice? For that matter, what about the Emperor, Himself?

It has a lot to do with a TED talk on glamour. By the old definition of the word, the Dark Side has a lot of glamour. It has a seductive, deceptive allure. But glamour has nothing to do with hard work. In fact, if it turned out that Darth Vader spent a lot of his time studying prospective spacecraft designs, thumbing through blueprints and tapping his chin, it clashes with his whole image. I find it strange to think that a character who represents ruthless effectiveness is not superimposable on the prerequisite behavior for effectiveness.

In fact, Vader fails at almost everything in the films. He has no self control. He loses the Death Star and his command ship. I think the films could have emphasized Anakin’s laziness more. I think that’s what got Vader into trouble. Always trying to take the easy way out and get everything at once. That’s what gets him in trouble again and again.

There’s a lesson there.


Breaking News: Cellist disease a hoax

Cello Scrotum is a hoax! Hypochondriac male musicians inclined toward large stringed instruments will have to find a new problem with which to afflict themselves. Guitar nipple, however, is all too real.

Alert reader Jason brought this L.A. Times article to our attention. It seems that in or around 1975, a mated pair of physicians cooked up the idea of Cello Scrotum despite the fact that a properly operated cello does not, in fact, come in contact with the genetalia. The paper got published anyway. It’s an early example of a parody in the scientific literature being taken literally.

It reminds me of a more recent iteration of this phenomenon: Alan Sokal published a computer generated gibberish paper in Social Text. He tells why he did so in his book, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.  Another instance occurred more recently: an MIT student got a conference paper accepted that was pure gibberish. To be fair, conference papers are not held to the same review standards as journal papers. Nonetheless, The Register sums up thusly:

Perhaps because of the atomization of the disciplines in both arts and science, the quality of published academic papers appears to be at rock bottom.

And these days, simply being published means you’re an authority. The MIT pranks illustrates all it takes to be published, is to submit a paper.

Maybe that’s true for Social Text, but it’s another matter for, say, Analytical Chemistry.


Caffeine and Hallucinations

According to this little Science Blog post, caffeine has been linked to hallucinations. This was corroborated by (badly spelled) anecdotal evicence at the Lycaeum (only when dealing with “drug culture” does poor spelling adds to authenticity and credibility).  The original article (subscription required):


In diathesis–stress models of psychosis, cortisol released in response to stressors is proposed to play a role in the development of psychotic experiences. Individual differences in cortisol response to stressors are therefore likely to play a role in proneness to psychotic experiences. As caffeine has been found to increase cortisol response to a given stressor, we proposed that, when levels of stress were controlled for, caffeine intake would be related to hallucination-proneness and persecutory ideation. Caffeine intake, stress, hallucination-proneness and persecutory ideation were assessed by self-report questionnaires in a non-clinical sample (N = 219). Caffeine intake was positively related to stress levels and hallucination-proneness, but not persecutory ideation. When stress levels were controlled for, caffeine intake predicted levels of hallucination-proneness but not persecutory ideation. Implications of these findings are discussed and avenues for future research suggested.

Translation: There are chemicals that seem to be related to craziness and also to caffeine. It turns out that, among 200 people, the crazy ones drink a lot more coffee… we don’t think it’s a coincidence.

I took their questionnaire. At the end it referred me to intervoiceonline.org, The International Community for Hearing Voices.


How long before they can tell what a person is dreaming?

Alert reader Robert “sent in” an article from Neuron this month (actually, he just walked over and showed it to me since we’re in the same lab). It is in keeping with the string of “brain chip” articles that The Big Upshot has been pleased to bring to the table. Miyawaki et. al. report in their article, “Visual Image Reconstruction from Human Brain Activity using a Combination of Multiscale Local Image Decoders” that they have successfully used fMRI brain scanning to reconstruct a person’s visual field.

Let me be perfectly clear. The Japanese can scan a person’s brain and determine what that person is seeing. How long before they can tell what a person is dreaming?

My grandmother told me that, years ago, people were worried about being hooked up to an electroenceephalogram. They would ask “you can’t read what I’m thinking, can you?”

Of course not. The EEG was far too low-resolution. But this… well… you don’t have anything to hide, right?

To be fair, the reconstituted image quality is not great. So at best these dream images would be of voyeur-tabloid quality. I don’t know if that makes the whole scenario better or worse.



Fringey science

This article at Esquire paints a fascinating picture of Dr. Mark Roth. The way this article tells the story, Dr. Roth went into the Fringe and came back with an interesting research subject. He figured out how to put mice into a state of near suspended animation.

Another scientist, Dr. Luca Turin gave a TED talk about the Science of Scent. I found it fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is it iconoclasm. The accepted view on receptor-ligand interactions (that happen when you smell something) is based on the shape of the molecule. Dr. Turin suggests something quite different. He suggests that the interaction is (in a sense) spectroscopic/vibrational. And it sounds vaguely like some ideas from homeopathy which are pretty fringey.

That leads to the my real topic for today: what is to be done with an idea that is interesting, worth investigating, but that sounds like quackery? The danger of the fringe is that the majority is crap. It’s the kind of thing that will capture a scientist’s imagination and take them on a never-ending wild goose chase. That’s called pathological science. And it’s worth avoiding. The people who chase it get a bad reputation.

These two gentlemen, Dr. Roth and Dr. Turin risked madness and explored potentially career-ending hypotheses and came out on the far side successful. As Morgan Freeman put it, they crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.